When this campaign is finally over, the picture that will stay in my head is not of the Obamas bumping fists, or of McCain and Palin, or of Hillary and Barack exchanging a quick kiss, although all of those were moments to remember.
It was seeing the two giants of Democratic politics of my lifetime, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, at a rally, approaching the closing weekend of the campaign.
There they were, the two 500-pound gorillas, truly together at last, breathing in the energy of the huge crowd, full of its life, with the former president passing the baton of leadership to the almost certainly future one.
It was not a moment that came easily. It was not exactly what Bill Clinton had in mind. But there was, in a way he more than anyone could surely understand, something fundamentally right about it.
Both Clinton and Obama are self-made men in every sense of the word: brilliant politicians, sons of absent fathers and struggling mothers, beloved grandsons, survivors who soared.
These are not men to the manor born: not sons of admirals (McCain) or Senators (Gore) or diplomats (Kerry) or Presidents (Bush), but of the American dream. In a different set of circumstances, Obama might have been Clinton’s protégé, and Clinton Obama’s mentor.
Instead, they have been rivals. Obama quite literally won Clinton’s support. But he has, in these final days, also welcomed him, one of the reasons -- one of many -- why he will succeed where only Clinton himself has.
I remember when Clinton tried to pass the baton to Al Gore eight years ago, and Gore wouldn’t take it.
Seriously. It was about a week before the convention in Los Angeles, and I was talking to the president on the phone. Feeling a little silly, I told him I would have to hang up in a few minutes, because I was running late for a meeting downtown with a friend who was running the convention.
Great, he said to me. I have an idea for you to sell. Tell them it’s your idea.
We’d been talking about the president’s speech on Monday night at the convention. He told me that he would review the accomplishments of his administration, and then make his pitch that if you wanted to continue the peace and prosperity of the past eight years, you should elect Al Gore. The idea was that at the moment when Clinton got to the Gore pitch, the backstage camera at Staples Center would pick up Gore entering the hall, and walking down its underground tunnels.
Yes, Gore and his press corps would have secretly landed at LAX as Clinton’s speech was beginning, and made their to Staples. The crowd would go nuts. As Clinton got to the moment where he said we need to elect Al Gore, Gore himself would emerge on the podium, the two men would lift their hands in the air, and the baton would be passed, in front of about 50 million people watching on TV.
This would take the place of the event the Gore campaign had scheduled at a football field in Michigan for the next morning; the way they’d scheduled it, the president was supposed to get up at about 4 a.m., fly to Michigan, and do essentially the same thing with no one watching at the crack of dawn.
They’ll tell you it can’t be done, the president told me … that Gore has an event on Monday night, that there aren’t enough hotel rooms in town for both of us and our press corps at the same time. But those are easy. He flies right out after the joint appearance, I leave the next day, then he comes back on Wednesday to accept the nomination Thursday.
Got it, I said. I’m brilliant.
I headed downtown. I started making my pitch. My friend looked at me. “You’ve been talking to him?” I didn’t budge. Cancel Monday's fundraiser in St. Louis, I said, when I got hit with that one, just move it to the next week. I was ready on the hotel rooms: Gore can fly to Stockton, or Vegas, or New Mexico -- all he has to do is leave town, then come back.
Finally, I got the real answer, the one I called the president back later to tell him. Gore wouldn’t do it. He thought Clinton would take up all the room. He was afraid of being upstaged.
To put it plainly, Gore didn’t think he was big enough. If I were him, I’d do it, the President said to me later. He needs to be as big as me to win.
Barack Obama is that big.
I got to know Bill Clinton when he was younger than Obama is now. Maybe this is a trick we all play on ourselves, but when I look at him, I still see the young man I knew, full of ambition and drive and desire, as well as the 60-something he has become. I see him as I see Obama.
I did not always see Obama this way. I wanted Hillary to be where he is today. She could have been. She might have been. The world would be on the verge of changing for women if she were. That was my dream.
But Barack Obama earned his place on the stage. No one gave him a head start. He ran a better campaign. He made fewer mistakes. He may not have been more experienced, but he was the better politician. He proved that he was big enough.
He was ready to take the baton, and on Tuesday he will take it.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.